By Clemente Lisi – NEW YORK, NY (Dec 24, 2018) US Soccer Players – There have been lots of high-profile European clubs who have set up shop in this country. Bayern Munich has an office in New York. Barcelona and Arsenal have established youth academies. The annual International Champions Cup happens each summer in NFL stadiums.
Soccer’s growth has also established several demographic surprises. That Americans are willing to spend good money on tickets to watch preseason games is well established. It is also a fact that MLS has seen growth. The recent success of Atlanta United is just one glaring example.
Then there are the partnerships that might happen under the radar in places not normally associated with big-time pro soccer. For example, the recent link between Spanish club Villarreal and America’s heartland. It speaks to the game’s global reach and the power it has to unite people and places far flung from one another.
One of the biggest stories to go largely unnoticed this year has been the creation of the Villarreal Nebraska Academy. Launched this past May, the club known as El Submarino Amarillo or the Yellow Submarine announced its partnership with Magellan Soccer, rebranding as the Villarreal Nebraska Academy. The academy’s two locations, in Omaha and Lincoln, features outdoor and indoor facilities and experienced coaches whose aim is to develop players ages four to 18.
Villarreal chose to set up a base in Nebraska after wanting to partner with Jorge Sambataro, who has a 20-year track record of working with youth players. He has coached and consulted with both youth and pro teams in Argentina and at the high school and NCAA level in this country. Sambataro now serves as technical director at Villarreal Nebraska Academy.
“From a soccer standpoint the aim is to give opportunities to players in the United States and specifically Nebraska the best opportunity to play at the highest level they want to achieve,” said Amy Scott, managing director at Villarreal Nebraska Academy. “To provide first-class experiences to boys and girls who have the potential to compete at the collegiate or professional level. Villarreal Nebraska develops an environment in which the soccer stars of the future will be nurtured and developed.”
Scott said two players from Nebraska will travel to Spain next month where they “will be spending a week working directly with Villarreal players and coaches and training with their teams on their campus.”
Villarreal may not have the brand recognition of Real Madrid or Barcelona but has a great tradition of developing and grooming youth players. While foreign stars such as Diego Forlan and Juan Roman Riquelme got lots of plaudits for helping Villarreal succeed in recent years, it was its homegrown talent that filled the roster throughout many of those years. While Villarreal is currently in the relegation zone this season, four of its academy players recently earned call-ups to Spain’s Under-18 team. Only Real Madrid received more.
It’s that level of success that Villarreal brings to the American heartland at a time when soccer continues to grow and show just how global its reach can be when it comes to player development. While Nebraska may be well known for its college football, there are plenty of futbol fans and players. The American Outlaws, the US National Team fan group, has three chapter in the state, including the one in Lincoln where the group started in 2007. Hundreds from the state traveled to Brazil for the 2014 World Cup.
The game isn’t limited to fandom. High school soccer players in the state during the 2013-14 school year featured 2,647 boys and 2,473 girls. The numbers marked a five-year high, according to the Nebraska School Activities Association, and surpassed baseball. This year, there were 2,888 boys who participated and 2,557 girls, proof of steady growth over the past four years. At the club level, thousands more are playing the game, a trend Villarreal can tap into and potentially nurture. The Nebraska State Soccer Association reports that nearly 22,000 boys and girls under the age of 19 play on club teams.
It wasn’t too long ago that Villarreal competed alongside some of Europe’s top clubs. It was during the 2003-04 season, when the team made its European debut, that it reached the UEFA Cup semifinals, only to lose to fellow Spanish side Valencia. Villarreal made the quarterfinals of the UEFA Cup a year later and finished third at the end of the 2004-05 season thanks to Forlan’s scoring exploits.
The club continued to stun opponents during the 2005-06 season. In the Champions League, Villarreal beat out Everton in the playoffs to qualify for the group stage. Villarreal went undefeated in the group, drawing games against Manchester United and getting a win and a draw, respectively, against Lille and Benfica. In the round of 16, Villarreal drew 3-3 at home against Rangers, advancing on away goals due to a 2-2 draw in Glasgow. In the quarterfinals, Villarreal beat Inter on away goals after finishing the home-and-away series 2-2 on aggregate. They lost to Arsenal in the semifinals.
Villarreal remained competitive, finishing runners-up in La Liga to Real Madrid during the 2007-08 season to date its best finish ever in the top flight. After a season in the second division in 2012-13, Villarreal returned to La Liga and continued to battle for spots in Europe. Villarreal featured in the Europa League as recently as the 2015-16 season, reaching the semifinals.
Academy players – dubbed “Mini Submarines” – could someday soon have an American flavor. “Villarreal is known worldwide as one of the top development clubs in the world having players competing on nearly every national team and many professional academy’s first teams,” Scott said. “There are now real and concrete opportunities for players in Nebraska and the United States being offered through Villarreal Nebraska Academy.”
Clemente Lisi is a regular contributor to US Soccer Players. He is also the author of A History of the World Cup: 1930-2014. Find him on Twitter:http://twitter.com/ClementeLisi.
More from Clemente Lisi:
- Soccer History: San Francisco Bay Blackhawks
- MLS 2018 season in review
- Henry, Gerrard, and Lampard on the sidelines in Europe
- What to watch as the USMNT moves forward
Logo courtesy of Villarreal